Starting lockdown sooner could've saved 30,000 lives, former Sage adviser Neil Ferguson claims

Watch: 20-30,000 lives 'could have been saved with earlier lockdown'

Implementing an earlier coronavirus lockdown at the start of the pandemic could have saved up to 30,000 lives, an expert has claimed.

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose modelling was instrumental in persuading the government to bring in the first lockdown, said scientists had become increasingly concerned in the week leading up to 13 March 2020 about the lack of a clear plan.

He was speaking the day after Dominic Cummings told MPs in an explosive session that complacency in government led to "tens of thousands" of deaths.

Ferguson said that between 20,000 and 30,000 lives could have been saved with earlier action from Boris Johnson.

Commenting on the figure, Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think that’s unarguable.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2021/01/09: A man walks past a 'Stay Home Save Lives' sign in Central London.
The posters are part of a government campaign to get people to comply with lockdown rules as Coronavirus cases continue to rise. (Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A man walks past a 'Stay Home Save Lives' sign in central London. (Getty)
Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, speaking by video link to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. (Photo by Parliament TV/PA Images via Getty Images)
Professor Neil Ferguson said that between 20,000 and 30,000 lives could have been saved with earlier action from the government. (Getty)

“I mean the epidemic was doubling every three to four days in weeks 13 to 23 March, and so had we moved the interventions back a week we would have curtailed that and saved many lives”.

Asked when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), of which he was part, determined that a policy of pursuing herd immunity would lead to a vast number of deaths, he said a key meeting was held with the NHS on 1 March “which finalised estimates around health impacts, so the week after that really”.

Watch: Dominic Cummings' explosive claims during COVID crisis

Ferguson said he “wasn’t privy to what officials were thinking within government”, but added: “I would say from the scientific side there was increasing concern that week leading up to 13 March about the lack of clear, let’s say, (a) resolved plan of what would happen in the next few days in terms of implementing social distancing.”

Asked about the change of policy to lockdown in March last year, Ferguson said: "Unfortunately I think one of the biggest lessons to learn in such circumstances is we really need good surveillance within the country at a much earlier point than we actually had it back in March last year.

“As we saw the data build up, and it was matching the modelling, even worse than the modelling, let’s say it focused minds”.

Ferguson was also asked about the prospect of the 21 June date set for COVID restrictions to end going ahead – and he voiced concerns that the Indian variant meant the final stage of Boris Johnson's road map hangs in the balance.

He added: “The key issue as to whether we can go forward is: will the surge caused by the Indian variant – and we do think there will be a surge – be more than has been already planned in to the relaxation measures?

“So it was always expected that relaxation would lead to a surge in infections and to some extent a small third wave of transmission – that’s inevitable if you allow contact rates in population to go up, even despite immunity – (but) we can’t cope with that being too large.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain, on May 26, 2021. Earlier Wednesday, Dominic Cummings, former top adviser of the British prime minister, said that thousands of people died unnecessarily because of the British government's failings and Boris Johnson was
Neil Ferguson said thousands of lives were lost due to a delay by Boris Johnson in implementing lockdown in March 2020. (Getty)

“In the next two or three weeks we will be able to come to a firm assessment of whether it’s possible to go forward.”

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage sub-committee advising on behavioural science has now called for a public inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic, saying that it should have taken place instead of the questioning of Cummings on Wednesday.

He told BBC Breakfast: “We can’t, tragically, do anything about those who are lost, but perhaps it will give meaning to what happens if their experience teaches us lessons so that we learn for the future.”

Watch: How England will leave lockdown